Editor’s Note: The They-Child Grows Wings

At the edge of the forest, the they-child saw the one-clawed bird, its feathers glinting cerulean in the sun. The bird stopped preening itself and stared; the they-child put their fingers to their neck and slowly shook, until the mask they wore wiggled loose. Off came the long auburn hair, the blue eyes ringed with sleeplessness, the mud-red collar buttoned to the chin. Underneath it the they-child was something else, something more splendid and strange, for the first time. They lifted the girl-mask up as a sort of offering. The bird extended its one giant talon and wrapped it around the part of the mask that had hugged the they-child’s skull. The bird started to fly, slowly at first–slow enough that the they-child could follow–and then faster, and the child found themselves lifting off the ground and gliding with new wings above the forest.

979ff707-61c5-434e-8459-22ad9a5b07b7I’m writing a fairy tale. It’s a very simple tale, with familiar archetypes and motifs: a young person, a bird, the woods, transformation. But it’s a tale that Sotheby’s–the auction house that owns Toyen’s Message from the Forest, the painting my story is based on–tells differently. In their version, there is no mask, no avian helper. “An owl-like spectre bearing in its one remaining claw the severed head of a girl,” says Sotheby’s of the painting; they also refer to Toyen as “she.”[1] The transmasculine Surrealist has been rendered into a woman; the painting, too, has been broken into its most obvious component parts: “owl-like spectre,” “one remaining claw,” “severed head of a girl.” I want more from it, I see more in it. So I read the painting queerly–through my own experiences as a non-binary genderqueer person, through what I know about Toyen–and try to riddle out a message from the forest that makes sense to me.

This is the story I choose to write: the girl-face as mask, the one-taloned bird as helper, the they-child running freely, as themselves, into the woods at last. I think of the obvious parallels between my life and the story: my tomboyish adulation of the woods as a child, and the avian name I chose at twenty in an attempt to be proud of my small stature and jumpy mannerisms, to give myself a non-binary name that fit my non-binary gender. I think, too, about which story Toyen would have preferred–mine or Sotheby’s, or neither. I struggle to imagine Toyen–an avowed anarchist, who hid his artistic partner, the poet Jindřich Heisler, of Jewish descent, from the Nazis–seeing nature, rather than humanity, as evil. Though perhaps he used the brightly colored bird as a stand-in for sinister human acts: Sotheby’s does say, “An image of anxiety and helplessness, it gave rise to the series of twelve drawings that []he embarked on over the next two years, influenced by the Nazis occupation of Prague, entitled Spectres of the Desert.” Sotheby’s has, I’m sure, proper art historians writing their descriptions, with proper training in historical context and technique–although I wonder what their biases make them overlook, or what they choose to ignore.

When I try to find something transgressive behind Message from the Forest–a bit of overlooked history, or a queer reading of the painting–perhaps I’ll only find my own reflection: the face of a strange and overgrown they-child standing, at the edge of the woods, girl-mask outstretched, hands trembling, wings pushing out through my shoulder blades. I’ll offer up the-gender-which-is-not-me-but-has-been-ascribed-to-me to my avian friend, who takes it and leads me deep into the woods, over rock and vine and river, to a place where all the birds are singing. Where I, too, will be a bird.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Wren Awry.


[1] This is common across the internet and in academic articles I’ve found on Toyen (Czech, 1902-1980). It is well-known that Toyen used the masculine case for himself and lived as a man yet art history seems to insist on presenting him as a cisgendered woman.